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Title: 5 Centimeters per Second (Byousoku 5-senchimeetoru)
Writer: Makoto Shinkai Artist: Yukiko Seike
Format: Manga (1 volume; 466 pages) Licensed by: Vertical Inc.
Genre: Romance, Drama
There are a number of things I expect from a romance manga, occasionally even things that change who I think I am. But I was genuinely shocked to find something in 5 Centimetres per Second that no other romance anime or manga has ever had. Good relationship advice.
5cm/s was originally a 2007 anime film, written and directed by a man many have called “The New Miyazaki”, Makoto Shinkai (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Garden of Words). A two-volume manga adaptation was illustrated by Yukiko Seike from 2010-2011, and released in English as a single, double-length volume in 2012. While I haven’t seen the film, I’ve been told that the manga adaptation has an expanded ending, and gives more attention to the major female characters.
The story starts with the main character, Takaki Tohno, as an elementary schoolboy who has just fallen for an elementary schoolgirl, Akari Shinobara. The two quickly become inseparable friends, bonding over a mutual love of books and science. Sadly, it isn’t until Akari moves away that the two are finally able to express their true feeling in letters.
After months of writing to one another, Tohno learns that his family will be moving to an island on the other side of Japan. He decides that, before he leaves, he has to see Akari and tell her, in person, that he loves her.
Tohno carefully plans the long, lonely night of train rides to Akari and back, but a snowstorm makes him hours late. To his surprise, Akari waited, trusting he would come, and in exchange Tohno promises he’ll wait too. He promises to be strong and maintain his feelings for her no matter how long it takes for them to see each other again. It turns out that’s a really hard promise to keep.
Most of the story follows Tohno after that day, as he moves through middle and high school and eventually early adulthood. We don’t see much of Akari again, instead there are different girls and other people in Tohno’s life who end up getting hurt because of his promise. He can’t open up or reciprocate their feelings for him because he’s hung up on this first crush.
It’s all very sweet and sad, and even as Tohno becomes more closed off and distant you have to sympathize with him because of what a pure-hearted romantic dream he has. Which is why it’s so impressive that the manga can tell us to give up on such a dream, without sounding cynical.
Tohno is a tough character to explain, not because he’s especially complex, but because almost half his life is spread across these pages. As a kid he’s smart and romantic. He’s a strong, silent teenage. And in adulthood he’s sad, and deeply lonely. The connecting thread through all this is his struggle with that promise to Akari.
Then there’s Kanae Sumida, a girl who has a crush on Tohno after he moves. She’s the only other character whose perspective is used, and it’s through her that we see Tohno in his teenage years as distant and aloof, but kind.
Kanae is swathed in her own troubled emotions. She’s not particularly smart or talented. Future life plans are a sore spot for her. And any attempt she could make at getting perspective is undermined by the constant, petrifying emotional flux she suffers in Tohno’s presence. The only rock in her life is her hobby, surfing.
More than anything Kanae serves to show the audience what harm Tohno is doing to other pursuing his romantic ideal.
On the technical side, the quality of the art is very good, and the writing effectively elicits almost every emotion the reader is supposed to feel. But, while these two most significant hurdles are overcome with ease, the book runs into a number of small potholes, likely due to the fact that Yukiko Seike, while talented, had never made a manga before.
For one, none of the speech-bubbles are marked, making it difficult, if not impossible, in some scenes, to tell who is speaking. I never got a good impression of a major character from the third act, Risa, because in almost every scene she’s in, it is very difficult to tell the difference between her and Tohno’s words.
There are also no translation notes, either between panels or at the end of the book. While for the most part the story is pretty universal, there are a few things the really could have used clarification. At one point Kanae is distressed over which snack she should get, but I had no clue why because I couldn’t read the apparently relevant Japanese labels. Also, a significant portion of the story takes place in Kagoshima, a major city on a southern Japanese island with its own distinct culture and climate. Just a short note about how this culture might affect the characters from Kagoshima would have been very helpful to find at the back of the book. While the TL notes are a pretty glaring oversight, there are only two or three points where they would have actually been called for.
Let 5 Centimetres per Second be the new gold standard when it comes to the physical, tactile experience of reading manga. At 14 x 19.1cm2, it’s slightly larger than a typical manga volume, and of course, at 466 pages, a good bit thicker as well. To accommodate the extra size, the English print uses some slightly thinner paper, making the whole book weigh less than a pound (408g, to be exact). The cover is also a bit slimmer than the norm, and more flexible too, allowing the book to comfortably fall open in your hand. The thinner paper also allows for quick, smoother page turning, so the reader keeps pace with the stream of emotion. Unfortunately, there are some issues with that pace.
Given the timespan of 5cm/s, bad pacing could be a deal breaker, which is why I was surprised to find the pacing problems it did have turned out to not be a big deal. From page to page, the quiet atmosphere of the original film struggles to adapt to written work, and following the narrative flow when long periods of time flash by in just a few pages is befuddling, but the emotional resonance of the scenes still shines through.
Our key indicator for time between scenes is how old the characters look, which works for the jump between high school and adulthood, but most of the time it’s impossible to tell whether two scenes are separated by six hours or six months. At one point Kanae mentions that she and Tohno had known each other for five years, and I’m still not sure where those years are or what age they were during any of it.
This is largely because of the presentation style. The character’s lives aren’t characterized by how one week or another goes, but just the general tone of entire life stages. All that’s important are the dozens of little significant events or exchanges that characterize or shape their existence. And it really doesn’t matter how much time passes between those events… mostly. It only makes things a little confusing; nothing is lost, but the story is sometimes hard to follow.
As for the pacing in reading, there’s a more complex issue. Of course, this is an adaptation of a film, a film that used dialogue very sparingly and employed atmospheric silence. But, while in a film you can have silence without affecting the speed of motion, in a manga silence means the reader is flipping through pages rapidly because there’s no writing to slow them down. Silence in manga is almost always fast paced.
Thankfully, 5 Centimetres per Second’s art is pretty enough, and uses enough panels in quiet and atmospheric scenes, that you will slow down enough, while taking in the visuals, to allow all the sentimental and melancholic little emotions to settle in. It’s a little faster than it probably should be, but not so fast that the effect is lost.
The message I took away from 5cm/s is the importance of wholeness in oneself. Tohno was never wrong to fall in love Akari, or to be so devoted to her. But somewhere along the line, he began to feel incomplete without her, just as they were drifting apart. It wasn’t missing her that brought him trouble, because the two do distinctly drift apart and stop writing to one another. It was the idea of breaking that promise; Tohno felt he would be betraying himself, not Akari, if he connected to any other woman. While I won’t discuss ending, what Tohno needs to do the whole time is be honest with himself, and accept that he’s not that same schoolboy he once was.
5 Centimetres per Second is not an expertly crafted manga, but it is a solid adaptation of a beautiful story. While wading through the second act can be a disorienting mess of time-lapse, the important points are easily found. The final chapters are emotionally resonant, and the journey of Takaki Tohno is easy to relate to.
Don’t Lose Your Way